He knew why he’d come here, why he always came here. For all that Amren taunted him about being an Illyrian brute, he knew his own mind, his own heart.
Devlon was a fairer camp-lord than most. But for the females who were less fortunate, who were preyed upon or cast out, there was little mercy.
So training these women, giving them the resources and confidence to fight back, to look beyond their campfires … it was for her. For the mother buried here, perhaps buried nowhere. So it might never happen again. So his people, whom he still loved despite their faults, might one day become something more. Something better.
The unmarked, unknown grave in this pass was his reminder.
Cassian stood in silence for long minutes before turning his gaze westward. As if he might see all the way to Velaris.
Rhys wanted him home for the Solstice, and he’d obey.
Even if Nesta—
Even in his thoughts, her name clanged through him, hollow and cold.
Now wasn’t the time to think of her. Not here.
He very rarely allowed himself to think of her, anyway. It usually didn’t end well for whoever was in the sparring ring with him.
Spreading his wings wide, Cassian took a final glance around the camp he’d razed to the ground. Another reminder, too: of what he was capable of when pushed too far.
To be careful, even when Devlon and the others made him want to bellow. He and Az were the most powerful Illyrians in their long, bloody history. They wore an unprecedented seven Siphons each, just to handle the tidal wave of brute killing power they possessed. It was a gift and a burden that he’d never taken lightly.
Three days. He had three days until he was to go to Velaris.
He’d try to make them count.
The Rainbow was a hum of activity, even with the drifting veils of snow.
High Fae and faeries alike poured in and out of the various shops and studios, some perched on ladders to string up drooping garlands of pine and holly between the lampposts, some sweeping gathered clusters of snow from their doorsteps, some—no doubt artists—merely standing on the pale cobblestones and turning in place, faces uplifted to the gray sky, hair and skin and clothes dusted with fine powder.
Dodging one such person in the middle of the street—a faerie with skin like glittering onyx and eyes like swirling clusters of stars—I aimed for the front of a small, pretty gallery, its glass window revealing an assortment of paintings and pottery. The perfect place to do some Solstice shopping. A wreath of evergreen hung on the freshly painted blue door, brass bells dangling from its center.
The door: new. The display window: new.
Both had been shattered and stained with blood months ago. This entire street had.
It was an effort not to glance at the white-dusted stones of the street, sloping steeply down to the meandering Sidra at its base. To the walkway along the river, full of patrons and artists, where I had stood months ago and summoned wolves from those slumbering waters. Blood had been streaming down these cobblestones then, and there hadn’t been singing and laughter in the streets, but screaming and pleading.
I took a sharp inhale through my nose, the chilled air tickling my nostrils. Slowly, I released it in a long breath, watching it cloud in front of me. Watching myself in the reflection of the store window: barely recognizable in my heavy gray coat, a red-and-gray scarf that I’d pilfered from Mor’s closet, my eyes wide and distant.
I realized a heartbeat later that I was not the only one staring at myself.
Inside the gallery, no fewer than five people were doing their best not to gawk at me as they browsed the collection of paintings and pottery.
My cheeks warmed, heart a staccato beat, and I offered a tight smile before continuing on.
No matter that I’d spotted a piece that caught my eye. No matter that I wanted to go in.
I kept my gloved hands bundled in the pockets of my coat as I strode down the steep street, mindful of my steps on the slick cobblestones. While Velaris had plenty of spells upon it to keep the palaces and cafés and squares warm during the winter, it seemed that for this first snow, many of them had been lifted, as if everyone wanted to feel its chill kiss.
I’d indeed braved the walk from the town house, wanting to not only breathe in the crisp, snowy air, but to also just absorb the crackling excitement of those readying for Solstice, rather than merely winnowing or flying over them.
Though Rhys and Azriel still instructed me whenever they could, though I truly loved to fly, the thought of exposing sensitive wings to the cold made me shiver.
Few people recognized me while I strode by, my power firmly restrained within me, and most too concerned with decorating or enjoying the first snow to note those around them, anyway.
A small mercy, though I certainly didn’t mind being approached. As High Lady, I hosted weekly open audiences with Rhys at the House of Wind. The requests ranged from the small—a faelight lamppost was broken—to the complicated—could we please stop importing goods from other courts because it impacted local artisans.
Some were issues Rhys had dealt with for centuries now, but he never acted like he had.
No, he listened to each petitioner, asked thorough questions, and then sent them on their way with a promise to send an answer to them soon. It had taken me a few sessions to get the hang of it—the questions he used, the way he listened. He hadn’t pushed me to step in unless necessary, had granted me the space to figure out the rhythm and style of these audiences and begin asking questions of my own. And then begin writing replies to the petitioners, too. Rhys personally answered each and every one of them. And I now did, too.
Hence the ever-growing stacks of paperwork in so many rooms of the town house.
How he’d lasted so long without a team of secretaries assisting him, I had no idea.
But as I eased down the steep slope of the street, the bright-colored buildings of the Rainbow glowing around me like a shimmering memory of summer, I again mulled it over.
Velaris was by no means poor, its people mostly cared for, the buildings and streets well kept. My sister, it seemed, had managed to find the only thing relatively close to a slum. And insisted on living there, in a building that was older than Rhys and in dire need of repairs.
There were only a few blocks in the city like that. When I’d asked Rhys about them, about why they had not been improved, he merely said that he had tried. But displacing people while their homes were torn down and rebuilt … Tricky.
I hadn’t been surprised two days ago when Rhys had handed me a piece of paper and asked if there was anything else I would like to add to it. On the paper had been a list of charities that he donated to around Solstice-time, everything from aiding the poor, sick, a
nd elderly to grants for young mothers to start their own businesses. I’d added only two items, both to societies that I’d heard about through my own volunteering: donations to the humans displaced by the war with Hybern, as well as to Illyrian war widows and their families. The sums we allocated were sizable, more money than I’d ever dreamed of possessing.
Once, all I had wanted was enough food, money, and time to paint. Nothing more. I would have been content to let my sisters wed, to remain and care for my father.
But beyond my mate, my family, beyond being High Lady—the mere fact that I now lived here, that I could walk through an entire artists’ quarter whenever I wished …
Another avenue bisected the street midway down its slope, and I turned onto it, the neat rows of houses and galleries and studios curving away into the snow. But even amongst the bright colors, there were patches of gray, of emptiness.
I approached one such hollow place, a half-crumbled building. Its mint-green paint had turned grayish, as if the very light had bled from the color as the building shattered. Indeed, the few buildings around it were also muted and cracked, a gallery across the street boarded up.
A few months ago, I’d begun donating a portion of my monthly salary—the idea of receiving such a thing was still utterly ludicrous—to rebuilding the Rainbow and helping its artists, but the scars remained, on both these buildings and their residents.
And the mound of snow-dusted rubble before me: who had dwelled there, worked there? Did they live, or had they been slaughtered in the attack?
There were many such places in Velaris. I’d seen them in my work, while handing out winter coats and meeting with families in their homes.
I blew out another breath. I knew I lingered too often, too long at such sites. I knew I should continue on, smiling as if nothing bothered me, as if all were well. And yet …
“They got out in time,” a female voice said behind me.